On the morning to leave for Borneo, we were excited and ready for adventure. But, as with most of our holidays, no matter how much time we give ourselves to prepare, it always feels like we are running out the door to leave on time. And then halfway down the road to the bus terminal I realised I had forgotten to take the rubbish out. I had to run back to make sure we didn’t return to a flat filled with fruit flies enjoying what would have been rotting remains of pineapple skin!
Getting from Seongju to Borneo
The first step of our journey was to get to Seoul; a rather pleasant 3 hour bus trip from Seongju. Our flight out of Korea was leaving at noon the next day so we decided to keep stress levels to a minimum and spend the night at a hotel near Incheon so we would have plenty of time. The hotel supplied a shuttle from the airport and a very cheerful driver helped us right up to our room and reminded us of our shuttle time on Friday to go back to the airport. The room had a great view of departing planes and had a number of interesting looking restaurants set around it. We settled on a gourmet bowl of Ramen for dinner to keep costs low!
On Friday morning we were promptly delivered back to the airport and set about exploring for somewhere to have breakfast. We had gone low-cost for all 5 of our flights and we weren’t willing to pay the exorbitant in flight costs for food, so eating at airports was a top priority! Bacon sandwiches were the order of the day, I could have eaten 20. When check in time came round we were greeted by the normal terrifyingly long queues but having been smarty pants we decided we could pack our clothes into carryon bags, which meant we could skip those queues and go straight to document check. Now we could wait sitting comfortably by departures.
Long layovers and tedious waits on the way
Our first flight took us to Manila in the Philippines. Being a visa free country for Saffas we now have an entry and exit stamp in our passports for the 5 minutes we had a look at the garden outside the airport doors. Unfortunately it did not look like a very inviting place where the security were heavily armed and numerous! We then flew to Kuala Lumpur and finally onwards to Sandakan in Borneo. About 9 hours flying in total but nearly 24 in transit! I learnt a while ago that it is foolish to try stay awake one flight to get a better sleep on the next, so those 24 hours were interspersed with many a cat-nap. Thankfully there were no delays on those 3 flights and on arrival in Sandakan we were whisked away to Sepilok, the Orangutan sanctuary, to make it in time for feeding.
Our first sighting of orangutans
For such awkwardly shaped animals orangutans are so serene in their movements. As we reached the viewing platform someone had walked into view to leave out a pile of fruit. Within moments a mother and baby orangutan arrived to start eating. There was a platform set in a tree quite a way from where we were standing, ropes from various places in the forest lead to it and give the orangutans freedom of movement around.
One of the sanctuaries troublemakers turned up next and after enjoying a few bananas he made is way over a rope to our viewing area. The guides there were very quick to try usher us away and warn us about our cameras, apparently this orangutan likes to relieve unwary tourists of their cameras! The sanctuary also has a nursery which can be seen from behind large glass windows but we sat for ages watching the antics of baby orangutans.
The Sun Bear conservation centre was next and we were warned that their feeding times weren’t as regular as the orangutans so we were worried that meant we may not see the little bears. Our fears were baseless as we saw nearly 20 Sun Bears snuffling around for treats. Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear and look like adorable, fluffy soft toys. They are poached because their gallbladders apparently have healing properties. The conservation centre has mostly rescued bears but they do try to rehabilitate them. Sun Bears love honey so the few hives in the centre need to be protected as the bears tend to destroy them!
Getting to Sukau
Utterly exhausted from the travel and excitement of seeing the animals, we were taken to lunch and then loaded onto a boat to go to our lodge. Huge storm clouds were building as we took off and within 5 minutes we were surrounded by mist and pelted with rain. I had picked the lucky side and only got a few drops but Monique was drenched! During the two and a half hour boat ride I kept nodding off when my lids became too heavy to keep open but every few minutes a new animal was potentially spotted which forced then energy up, only to slowly fade away again.
On the ride it felt like we were travelling into the middle of nowhere. Thick jungle clung onto each side of the Kinabatangan River as we sped further and further away from the coast. We finally reached our destination, the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, nestled into the rainforest and right next to the river. The lodge is part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World and for good reason. All the staff were exceptional, the rooms and facilities were fantastic and it was an amazing experience living in a rainforest for several days. We had welcome drinks and the basics were explained to us before we could unpack and get ready for our first river cruise.
Over the 3 days we were there we went on 5 river cruises. They have the Borneo big 5 and over those cruises we saw 4 of the 5; Rhinoceros Hornbill, Orangutan, Proboscis Monkey and Crocodile. Unfortunately we didn’t see the pygmy elephants but such is life! The cruises are always luck and on our last day when we finally saw an orangutan in the wild (as well as a 5m croc), Monique and I overheard someone complain bitterly that they didn’t see anything of those things.
If you are an avid birder this is definitely a holiday to take. Kingfishers were a dime a dozen but we saw fish and serpent eagles, 3 different species of hornbill, 2 species of owls, herons, storks (including the very endangered Storm’s Stork) dollar birds and many others that I can’t remember right now! There is an optional night cruise where we could boat right up to the sleeping birds and we saw a baby croc, a flying squirrel in flight and a snake.
The lodge has a boardwalk which goes through the forest and they suggest walking it at night to try see some night critters. During the day we only saw a pygmy squirrel and on our last night, scaring ourselves stupid, we saw nothing but super large spiders and snails… Our last big trip at the lodge was to the Gomantong caves where birds’ nests are harvested to make bird nest soup.
The nests are made from saliva if you were wondering how a nest can make soup! The cave is heaped with guano and there is the constant fluttering of wings; birds and bats. The birds are interesting in that they cannot fly from the ground; they have to drop from a perch to get the momentum to fly. If it lands of the ground that is a death sentence and we had the sad view of one stuck on the floor. We were told that you cannot help it as much as you may want to because the eco-system of the cave does rely on things like that.
As an eco-tour you cannot intervene! There are also crabs that live off the guano and the scariest centipedes that can eat baby birds; they look like they are from Tim Burton’s nightmares! There is a boardwalk around the whole interior of the cave, allowing you to walk right to the back, the entrance is about 90m high and the highest point is about 240m according to our guide.
And the food!
The food at the lodge is delicious. All our meals were provided at the Melapi Restaurant. If you arrived late you did have thin pickings but I would go right back just for the food! Breakfast was possibly the best with freshly made omelettes and hash browns. Every meal we could sit on the deck and look out over the river. There was also a very convenient bar which stocked Monique’s much needed G&T’s (We haven’t found tonic water in Korea yet!!!) and icy cold Tiger beers for me.
It was with a heavy heart that we left the lodge on our final day but we set out to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which is set in Primary Rainforest (our lodge was in Secondary rainforest) and finally visit the Sandakan Memorial for the POWs and locals killed during World War 2 but the Japanese occupiers. It was fascinating to visit the memorial because despite having studied WWII during history, no mention of the East ever came up. I knew of Japan’s involvement in Pearl Harbour etc. but the extent of how the East was influenced was never brought up!
The long journey home
Our flight from Sandakan to KL left that evening but was delayed by over an hour. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem but we were meant to catch another hotel shuttle which was very strict on times. We needed to meet it at 10pm but in their own email it says that they will wait for 15 minutes over that time. A very stressful flight ended with us sprinting out to the meeting point, both my time and the airport time showing 10:13. Close but still within the time limit given.
Was our driver there? No… So we eventually found organised a taxi at 10 times what the shuttle would have cost and headed to our hotel. Our taxi driver knew the area but after driving around for 20 minutes he couldn’t find the hotel and phoned. From the sounds of the conversation the reception was not being helpful but we eventually found the place. The sign is so hidden and obscure I don’t think we would have seen it if we walked past it.
At the reception we were ignored for 5 minutes before we eventually got an annoyed grunt because clearly we were wasting this man’s time. We brought up the shuttle issue but the response implied that clearly we were lying because the driver got back at his normal time and said we hadn’t turned up. The only 2 people who needed to be on that shuttle. When they had all our flight details. Would see there was a delay. And still couldn’t wait the full 15 minutes they claim. Ass.
The design of the hotel was modern but felt very kitsch and cheap. We hadn’t broken the bank booking the place but it left a lot to be desired. If you come across the “youniQ” hotel in any of your travels I would recommend avoiding them. After the amazing experience of Sukau we felt like we were doing them a disservice with our patronage.
Sights and sounds of KL
The next day we spent wandering Kuala Lumpur. It was as hot as hell and in my continual enthusiasm for walking I suggested we walk to the markets and Petronas Twin Towers because they were only about 2km at the furthest point. Unfortunately it went wrong at the start and we walked out of the station the wrong way. After a while we realised this because despite not having any sort of internet connection, my Maps.me app still told us where we were! (Best app ever – get it!) So we turned around and headed back.
Now a funny thing we learnt about KL, they can have these great pavements that just end for no reason. So you’re happily walking along in the right direction when suddenly you can go no further and have to double back! What should have taken an hour was still going on after nearly 3. Eventually we could go no further and took a short left into the closet bar for something ice cold. When we felt strong enough again our wanderings led us to the Central Market and Petronas Twin Towers. If you want to visit the walkway I would suggest booking in advance as the tickets were sold out when we arrived but the price (RM85) felt a little too expensive to just walk on a walkway and we probably wouldn’t have gone anyway.
Packing it in
This post has dragged on for quite long now and I still haven’t said half of what I wanted to! But I will end it here as the remainder of our trip was just getting back to Korea and finally Seongju. Our holiday was incredible and what started with Monique saying she wanted to see orangutans ended with us spending a few days in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to and treated to seeing an amazing range of animals in their natural habitat. I would highly recommend the Sukau Rainforest lodge for anybody looking for a different holiday!
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